WASHINGTON -- With Americans reeling from the news that the Islamic State group killed 129 people and wounded 352 in Paris on Friday, presidential candidates hoping to succeed President Barack Obama are scurrying to show they can manage the U.S. fight against the terrorist group better than he can.
That's difficult, though, because almost none of them -- Republican or Democrat -- have elucidated a path forward that is notably different from the policies already in place.
Obama since August 2014 has built a coalition of more than 60 European and Arab allies to combat ISIS, authorized near-daily air strikes on its positions in Iraq and Syria, approved the deployment of U.S. advisers to Iraq and special forces to Syria, and sent aid to locals willing to tackle the extremists on the ground -- Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi military in Iraq, and nationalist Sunni Arab groups and the Syrian Kurds in Syria.
On Monday, Obama dismissed calls for a full-scale ground invasion in Iraq and Syria and promised instead an “intensification” of the current strategy.
That is effectively what most of the 2016 field wants too.
Democratic aspirants Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley have said they would sustain Obama's war plan.
Indirectly, so have two top Republican candidates -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says there should be a focus on working with Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the two ethnic groups the Obama administration speaks most often about engaging. And former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina wants to see the U.S. leading an alliance of Arab states. “We really are sitting by when we could be leading a coalition of Arab allies to defeat ISIS,” Fiorina said in August, almost a year after the State Department announced that Obama's anti-ISIS coalition would include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Jeb Bush, who tweeted Monday that “President Obama doesn’t understand we are at war," has expressed a desire to do more but has said little beyond mentioning the deployment of more special operators -- which would be building on an Obama move -- and making clear that like Obama, he does not see a need for a major American combat presence.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also shares the White House’s opposition to a large-scale ground invasion and favors U.S. airstrikes instead. Still, he sees the political value of suggesting that he's got an alternative -- he criticized the Obama administration on Monday for having “zero tolerance for civilian casualties.” To Cruz, it appears, the only problem with the current approach is its aversion to collateral damage and human suffering.
The handful of candidates who truly offer something different are those who advocate expanded American military intervention.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has called for a no-fly zone in parts of Syria. She says that use of American and allied air power could provide a haven for Syrians fleeing the brutality of dictator Bashar Assad and ISIS, helping ease the refugee burden on Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe. The no-fly zone would also increase the pressure on Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran, to end the country's civil war, Clinton has argued.
And some of them have pledged to go further. Carson, Kasich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have all said they would deploy U.S. ground troops to target ISIS.
Graham is the only one so far to throw out a specific number of troops necessary for the fight. His proposed 10,000 troops, spread across Iraq and Syria, would still be a minuscule fighting force compared to the 130,000 deployed to Iraq in 2004.
While Rubio has hinted at support for sending U.S. ground forces, he says “it’s premature to say the exact numbers.” Real estate mogul Donald Trump has offered similarly vague suggestions concerning ground troops. "You either do it, or you don't do it," Trump said after Obama announced a small-scale deployment to Syria -- but Trump didn't say what he would do.
The de facto consensus suggests that despite dissatisfaction with Obama’s approach, the U.S. isn't likely to embrace a new anti-ISIS approach soon. Candidates are not talking about other potential solutions, such as empowering specific communities of anti-Assad, anti-ISIS Syrians, or pressuring Arab allies to bring their strength back to the ISIS fight rather than in their war on Yemen, one of the Muslim world's poorest countries.
It's clear that candidates see this battle as too complex and Americans as too war-weary for politicians to disagree on very much or commit themselves to bigger military adventures abroad. That's led to a lot of talk about how to identify the U.S.'s enemy. On Monday, Rubio reiterated the need to declare war on “radical Islam,” something Obama has categorically refused to do.
“Nobody wants to be seen advocating for a new Iraq War. It’s politically toxic,” Alex Ward, an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, told The Huffington Post.
At the same time, there’s “a realization that in order to defeat ISIS, a lot of time would be needed. No candidate wants to be seen as willing to start a long-term struggle versus a terrorist group, as the general voter doesn’t have the stomach for another Middle East sojourn,” continued Ward.
Focusing on rhetoric rather than policy allows 2016 candidates to score political points without having to float ideas that might expand the conversation about ISIS but also cost them support.
The commander-in-chief made that point Monday.
“Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference, because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough,” Obama said, referring to criticism about his decision to stay the course in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. “But I haven’t seen particular strategies that they would suggest that would make a real difference."
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